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Brief Comment On The Central (now Alps Road) Presbyterian Church Decision, Athens, Georgia – The Exception That Proves The Rule

(By Steve Salyards, The GA Junkie). I began my previous property post on the Bethlehem Presbyterian Church court arguments with the reference to the cliché “fools rush in where angels fear to tread.” This is a very apt phrase to keep in mind when dealing with church property cases because the law varies significantly between states and each case has its own particular circumstances. Earlier this month we got a very good example of this in a court decision from Athens, Georgia.

Being in Georgia the hierarchical church gets strong support as laid out in the 2011 state supreme court decision of Presbytery of Greater Atlanta, Inc. v. Timberridge Presbyterian Church, Inc. (Timberridge decision). The court wrote in the conclusion:

Like the trial court, we conclude that neutral principles of law demonstrate that an implied trust in favor of the PCUSA exists on the local church’s property to which TPC Inc. holds legal title. See Barber, 274 Ga. at 359; Crumbley, 243 Ga. at 345. The Court of Appeals erred in concluding to the contrary.

The critical word in that block is “implied,” sort of like “if you are a PCUSA church than the trust clause applies to you – end of story.” Very few states have given this level of deference to hierarchical churches. But the latest decision shows that it is not necessarily that simple and it is probably best to wait on analysis until you have the data.

In the case of Central Presbyterian Church, now Alps Road Presbyterian Church, a decision was handed down earlier this month that made a preliminary award of the property to the congregation. [And our thanks to The Layman for posting a copy of the decision.] The difference in this case is the strong documentary evidence that from the highest levels of the PCUS and then PCUSA the understanding was that the trust clause was a theological understanding.

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Judge Rules in Favor of Athens Church

A Superior Court judge has issued an injunction, ruling that a congregation that voted to disaffiliate from the Presbyterian Church (USA) to join ECO: A Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians can – for now – continue to use the church property.

The judge ruled that the ECO congregation – formerly known as Central Presbyterian Church in Athens, Ga., showed it had a “likelihood of prevailing on its claim that no civilly enforceable trust exists” in the church property. The church now goes by its new name – Alps Road Presbyterian Church.

However, because of pending legal actions, the church may not sell, transfer or encumber the church property. There are several other stipulations in the ruling that the church and presbytery must adhere to until all legal matters are settled.

The Book of Order of the PCUSA includes a property clause, stating all church property is held in trust for the denomination:

All property held by or for a particular church, a presbytery, a synod, the General Assembly, or the Presbyterian Church (USA), whether legal title is lodged in a corporation, a trustee or trustees, or an unincorporated association, and whether the property is used in programs of a particular church or of a more inclusive governing body or retained for the production of income, is held in trust nevertheless for the use and benefit of the Presbyterian Church (USA)” G-4.0203 of the Book of Order.

Testimony during the trial,  however, “showed that CPC believed that its property rights were not going to be affected by the reunion (or by the amendments to the PCUS constitution pre-dating the 1983 merger containing similar trust language.)

“Reunion” refers to the merger in 1983 of the Northern (United Presbyterian Church in the United States of America, UPCUSA) and Southern (Presbyterian Church in the United States, or PCUS) branches of the Presbyterian denominations becoming one denomination — The Presbyterian Church (USA).

In his ruling, Superior Court Judge Eric W. Norris cited a 1981 letter written by Rev. James Andrews, the PCUS Stated Clerk at that time, regarding a similar trust clause proposed by that denomination, stating that the new trust clause “would not change the Presbyterian Church’s historical position on property.” Andrews’ wrote “These amendments do not in any way change the fact that the congregation, in the Presbyterian Church in the U.S., owns its own property.”

Norris also highlighted a 1982 report from Andrews which affirmed the denomination’s position in a report to all of the PCUS commissioners: “The language dealing with trust does not in any way establish any kind of an encumbrance on church property as that term is understood in connection with real estate.”

Timberridge Ruling

In an earlier church property dispute between Timberridge Presbyterian Church and Greater Atlanta Presbytery in 2011, the Georgia Supreme Court, in a 4-3 opinion ruled in favor of the PCUSA, stating that Timberridge was a part of a “hierarchical denomination” whose constitution includes a “trust clause.” The court then concluded that mere membership in such a denomination implies that a local church has consented to placing his property in trust, even if the local church never explicitly expressed such consent.

The opinion said “… Timberridge’s act of affiliating with the PCUSA in 1983 with the trust provision already in its governing constitution demonstrated that Timberridge assented to that relinquishment of its property rights – rights it then chose not to reassert by leaving the new national church during the next eight years.”

Judge Norris addressed this issue in his ruling, stating that the “Timberridge opinion does not refer to any pre-vote or pre-reunion communications between the general church and the local church concerning the property clause in the PCUSA (or PCUS) constitution. The existence of this type of evidence would have been relevant to the Supreme Court’s conclusion regarding the intention of the parties. Given this distinction, the court finds that the Timberridge precedent does not require finding the existence of an implied trust in the instant case. Moreover, the same legal principles articulated in the Timberridge decision could result in a finding that the parties to this action did not intend a trust to be imposed on the local church’s property.”

The History

On Jan. 24, 2016, the congregation voted 159 to 36 (82% to 18%) to be dismissed from the PCUSA and affiliate with ECO. Northeast Georgia Presbytery appointed an Administrative Commission for the church, and on Dec. 13, 2016 the AC report had three recommendations:

  1. that schism be declared at CPC and that the faction wishing to remain in the PCUSA was entitled to all CPC property;
  2. that the NEGP deny the departing faction’s request to leave the denomination with CPC’s property; and
  3. that NEGP appoint a new Administrative Commission that would take necessary action to appoint a new session for CPC.

On Jan. 20, 2017, the presbytery approved the first two recommendations, but did not vote on the third, since a temporary restraining order had been granted by the civil court the day before.

Meanwhile, following the report of the AC’s recommendations, the congregation’s board of directors voted unanimously (13-0) on Jan. 4, 2017, to disaffiliate with the PCUSA, and filed the lawsuit in civil court.

According to local newspaper, members of the church who are loyal to the PCUSA are meeting at 11 a.m. in the Presbyterian Student Center near the University of Georgia campus for Sunday services.

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Central Presbyterian in Athens Disaffiliates from PCUSA; Joins ECO

(Press release). ATHENS, GA, January 9, 2017 – Central Presbyterian Church leaders announced today that the church has disaffiliated from the Presbyterian Church (USA) in order to immediately associate with ECO: A Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians, which is another national Reformed Presbyterian denomination.

“We are excited to be joining ECO,” said Dr. Bob Bohler, senior pastor for nearly 20 years. “It is a growing, vibrant denomination with a strong, Biblical theology, and a great match on all counts for our church.”

The church’s corporate board of directors, which also functioned as the church’s “Session,” unanimously voted on January 4 to disaffiliate from the Presbyterian Church (USA) and join with ECO as soon as possible..

“We had been trying to work with our local presbytery,” said Associate Pastor Deb Trimpe. “But the presbytery announced that it intended to fire all pastors, remove the church’s governing body, and take over the church, telling us that anyone who didn’t like it was free to leave.”

Under the circumstances, the leadership of the church believed that continued strife was not the best course for this vibrant church. As part of the move to the new denomination, the church changed its name to Alps Road Presbyterian Church and filed an equitable action asking a judge to determine the status of the property in light of the change of denominations.

“We are ready to refocus our efforts on our programs and missions, both in our community and beyond, and we believe becoming the first ECO church in our area will best further our work,” Bohler said. “I’ve been humbled by the community’s overwhelming support for our church during this time.”

The number of churches in the ECO denomination has grown more than 10-fold in the past few years, making it one of the fastest growing denominations in the country. Other ECO churches include Highland Presbyterian Church in Dallas, Texas, and Menlo Park Presbyterian Church in the San Francisco Bay area in California.

Related articles:

Dissenters Can’t Take Central Presbyterian Property With Them if They Leave PCUSA

Central Presbyterian Church Legal Battle with PCUSA Heats Up

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